The Great Porn Experiment - Given at TEDx (March, 2012)

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Have our brains evolved to handle the hyperstimulation of today’s Internet enticements? Gary Wilson discusses the disturbing symptoms showing up in some heavy Internet users, the surprising reversal of those symptoms, and the science behind these phenomena.

Empirical support for "The Great Porn Experiment" (2012)

For comprehensive support for the claims presented in each slide see these two pages:

It’s important to note that The Great Porn Experiment was completed and sent to TEDx in December 2011, while the talk was given in March, 2012. This TEDx talk was a direct response to Philip Zimbardo's "Demise of Guys" TED talk, which the Glasgow audience viewed just prior to the talk. Since December 2011, a large body of supporting research and clinical evidence has arrived to support The Great Porn Experiment's three primary assertions, which were:

  1. Internet porn can cause sexual dysfunctions;
  2. Internet porn use can lead to the 3 major addiction-related brain changes identified in substance addictions; and
  3. Internet porn use may exacerbate certain mental and emotional conditions (concentration problems, social anxiety, depression, etc.).  

The following is a short summary of empirical and clinical evidence supporting claims made in The Great Porn Experiment. Scroll down below it for slide-by-slide support.

1) Internet porn use can cause sexual dysfunctions:

2) Internet porn use can lead to the 3 major addiction-related brain changes identified in substance addictions:

The Great Porn Experiment listed ten internet addiction “brain studies,” which supported my thesis that internet addiction (and internet addiction subtypes such as gaming and porn) exists and involves the same fundamental mechanisms and brain changes as other addictions. This field of study is growing exponentially. As of 2017, there are some 290 internet addiction "brain studies." All of them report neurological findings and brain changes in internet addicts consistent with the addiction model (the list of Internet addiction "brain studies"). In addition, the design of several internet addiction studies supports the claim that internet use is causing (in some) symptoms such as depression, ADHD, anxiety, etc. The list of such studies: Studies demonstrating Internet use & porn use causing symptoms & brain changes.

The Great Porn Experiment described three major brain changes that occur with porn addiction: (1) Sensitization, (2) Desensitization, and (3) Dysfunctional prefrontal circuits (hypofrontality). Since March, 2012, much neurological research on porn users and porn addicts has been published. All three of these brain changes have been identified among the 39 neuroscience-based studies on frequent porn users and sex addicts:

  • Studies reporting sensitization or cue-reactivity in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20.
  • Studies reporting desensitization or habituation in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
  • Studies reporting poorer executive functioning (hypofrontality) or altered prefrontal activity in porn users/sex addicts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

The 39 neuroscience-based studies (MRI, fMRI, EEG, neuropsychological, hormonal) provide strong support for the addiction model, as do the 16 recent literature reviews & commentaries by some of the top neuroscientists in the world.

I also described escalation or habituation in my TEDx talk (which can be an indication of addiction). Three studies have now asked porn users specifically about escalation into new genres or tolerance, confirming both (1, 2, 3). Employing various indirect methods, an additional 30 studies have reported findings consistent with habituation to "regular porn" or escalation into more extreme and unusual genres.

Finally, it wasn’t until 2017 that three research teams asked internet-porn users directly about withdrawal symptoms. All reported withdrawal symptoms in “problematic porn users” (1, 2, 3)

What about neurological studies that debunk porn addiction? There are none. While the lead author of Prause et al., 2015 claimed her lone EEG study falsified pornography addiction, six peer-reviewed papers disagree: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The neuroscientists on these six papers state that Prause et al. actually found desensitization/habituation (consistent with the development of addiction), as less brain activation to vanilla porn (pictures) was related to greater porn use. Unbelievably, the Prause et al. team boldly claimed to have falsified the porn addiction model with a single paragraph taken from this 2016 "letter to the editor." In reality the Prause letter falsified nothing, as this extensive critique reveals: Letter to the editor “Prause et al. (2015) the latest falsification of addiction predictions" (2016).

But ‘porn addiction’ isn’t in the APA's DSM-5, right? When the APA last updated the manual in 2013 (DSM-5), it didn’t formally consider “internet porn addiction,” opting instead to debate “hypersexual disorder.” The latter umbrella term for problematic sexual behavior was recommended for inclusion by the DSM-5’s own Sexuality Work Group after years of review. However, in an eleventh-hour “star chamber” session (according to a Work Group member), other DSM-5 officials unilaterally rejected hypersexuality, citing reasons that have been described as illogical.

Just prior to the DSM-5’s publication in 2013, Thomas Insel, then Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, warned that it was time for the mental health field to stop relying on the DSM. Its "weakness is its lack of validity," he explained, and "we cannot succeed if we use DSM categories as the "gold standard." He added, "That is why NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories." In other words, the NIMH planned to stop funding research based on DSM labels (and their absence).

Major medical organizations are moving ahead of the APA. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) hammered what should have been the final nail in the porn-addiction debate coffin in August, 2011, a few months before I prepared my TEDx talk. Top addiction experts at ASAM released their carefully crafted definition of addiction. The new definition makes some of the major points I made in my talk. Foremost, behavioral addictions affect the brain in the same fundamental ways as drugs do. In other words, addiction is essentially one disease (condition), not many. ASAM explicitly stated that sexual behavior addiction exists and must necessarily be caused by the same fundamental brain changes found in substance addictions.

The World Health Organization appears poised to set right the APA’s excessive caution. The world's most widely used medical diagnostic manual, The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), contains a new diagnosis suitable for porn addiction: "Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder" (2018).

3) Internet porn use may exacerbate certain mental and emotional conditions

The Great Porn Experiment described “The Other Porn Experiment” in which young men who eliminated porn use reported remission of emotional and cognitive problems. TGPE also described "arousal addiction" (internet addiction and its subtypes) exacerbating or causing symptoms such as brain fog, concentration problem, generalized anxiety, depression and social anxiety. As of 2017 there exist hundreds of correlative studies and a few dozen causation studies supporting this assertion.

In 2016 Gary Wilson published two peer-reviewed papers: